November 11, 2020
Saturday’s celebrations across the country were pure catharsis, after President-elect Joe Biden was officially declared the winner of the 2020 election. But the wheels of the post-election strategizing and course-correcting have already begun to churn. According to Biden’s team, his administration already has an ambitious first 100 days planned, including a mixture of executive orders to implement immediately and longer-term goals to pursue. Of equal note will be Biden’s eventual Cabinet picks and what they could mean for the president-elect’s priorities, the administration’s broader strategy, and the future of progressive policy goals that energized the Democratic base this election cycle, like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All.
A president’s Cabinet picks must be confirmed by the Senate. With Georgia’s two Senate seats heading to a runoff election in January, control of the Senate is in limbo for the time being — but it looks likely that Biden will be met with an obstinate Republican Senate when he takes office in January. It was even reported last week that Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, might use control of the upper chamber as a bludgeon to force Biden into choosing milquetoast centrists to fill out his presidential panel.
That leverage only works for McConnell, though, if Biden stays the course. But this is one area where the former vice president might actually want to emulate his predecessor. President Trump has made liberal use of non-Senate options to install officials, one being The Vacancies Act, which allows presidents to appoint temporary Cabinet members as “acting” secretaries. They’d only be allowed to serve in their position for 210 days after the vacancy occurs, unless Biden re-nominates them for a permanent position. It’s not necessarily a clean fix, let alone a four-year strategy, but it would at least provide Biden’s administration with some agency early on in a presidency that seems destined for aggressive partisanship and a stubborn Republican opposition at every turn.
Most importantly though, this degree of agency would allow Biden’s administration to actually demonstrate his commitment to a progressive agenda. Post-election commentary has done much to laud Biden for his success at the polls, though the record-breaking turnout could just as easily be attributed to an impressive organizing base of grassroots organizations determined to oust Trump. Either way, Biden’s Cabinet appointments would be a great way to demonstrate his commitment to the multi-racial, working-class collective of voters that saved his campaign. Where Trump, McConnell, and the Republican-controlled Congress used loopholes to secure party wins that ultimately hurt the country’s most vulnerable, a Biden administration could use whatever loopholes and little-known procedures available to safeguard and empower them.
Biden really does have the chance to show his grit and determination — or perhaps reveal that his consistent talk about reaching across the aisle will take precedent over effecting big change.
Back during the primaries — you know, a lifetime ago — early rumors and reports around Biden’s possible Cabinet picks named people like Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and Anne Finucane, vice chairman of Bank of America, for Treasury Secretary. There was also the possibility of Biden going the complete opposite direction and tapping Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator whose own presidential bid ended in March. Thankfully, Warren seems to be the only serious remaining contender of the bunch and appears to be a popular frontrunner for the position. Two Democratic officials said to have knowledge of the senator’s thinking told Politico last month that “she wants it.”
Choosing Warren actually makes a lot of sense, despite what seems on paper to be a clash between leftist politics and Biden’s more conservative instincts. In a recent survey conducted by Data for Progress and Demand Progress, voters seem pretty distrustful of Capitol Hill’s typically elitist crowd of advisers. According to the survey, 56% of respondents (58% of Democrat-identified respondents and 53% of Republican-identified respondents) said that lobbyists have “too much” influence over government policy. Similarly, 56% of respondents (including 63% of Democrats and and 49% of Republicans) said Wall Street executives have “too much” influence, 54% of survey-takers said the same about executives of large tech companies like Google and Amazon, and 53% agreed that oil and gas company executives also have “too much” influence.
Choosing Cabinet secretaries will be the first true test for the Biden administration. Here, Biden really does have the chance to show his grit and determination — or perhaps reveal that his consistent talk about reaching across the aisle will take precedent over effecting big change. Will he choose a safe, uninspiring, compromise-heavy approach that could end up costing the same marginalized communities that centrist policies always cost? Or will he rise to the occasion, recognize the issues that genuinely energized the bulk of his base throughout the primary season, and leverage his power?
Tapping Warren, along with progressive favorites like Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams all seem like smart opening choices. At the least, leaking that they’re under consideration would be a smart move for a Biden team looking to show it’s taking the left wing of the party seriously. Someone like Sanders likely wouldn’t make it past a Republican-controlled Senate confirmation, but even a temporary Cabinet position for him or Warren could act as a much-needed olive branch to the progressive left. Including all three individuals would give Biden a wide array of supporters, a noteworthy geographic reach, and a wealth of good ideas.
With the climate crisis and the Green New Deal still hanging in the balance, this would be the perfect chance to leverage the relationship the Democratic Party has built with the Sunrise Movement in the last several months to come up with staunchly pro-environment options to add to his Cabinet. Choosing someone strong on climate would line up with Biden’s own plan to re-join the Paris climate agreement and commitment to at least take science seriously — a welcome change after the last four years — but also help him extend his initial approach into a comprehensive plan to save the planet.
In that same vein, a Biden administration could cover a lot of overlooked ground by working with the creators of the BREATHE Act to develop possible Cabinet picks — or even appoint some of the legislation’s backers. Biden has always been pretty supporitve of police departments and has advocated for increasing police budgets in the hopes of pushing reforms. An appointee who supports the BREATHE Act would hopefully offer some much-needed research and pushback, especially given Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s prosecutorial background, which has some progressives skeptical of the Biden-Harris ticket’s approach to policing. Even some of the existing names being floated for attorney general, such as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, could be net positives: Booker, who ran for president in the 2020 cycle but dropped out early, has been a leader on criminal justice reform for years now. Yates, for her part, was first appointed to the position during the Obama administration and was fired early during the Trump administration for refusing to support Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries.
The progressive approach could be woven throughout the Cabinet. Consider what Biden could do by leverage the immense power demonstrated by teachers’ unions across the country in recent years by appointing a secretary of education who is backed by the likes of the American Federation of Teachers, the legendary Chicago Teachers Union, and their allies. Biden’s administration could appoint someone who is supported by the nation’s teachers while also laying the groundwork for a much more fertile, much more collaborative pathway for comprehensive education reform. Sanders is being mentioned for Secretary of Labor. Progressive California Rep. Karen Bass has been tied to the head post at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The possibilities are there.
Having Cabinet selections approved by grassroots organizations like the Sunrise Movement, the Movement for Black Lives, and a coalition of teachers’ unions certainly won’t make Biden’s administration immune to criticism. But it could do wonders to demonstrate to Biden’s base that he’s willing to fight for them with the kind of straightforwardness and temerity needed to not only offset the Trump years, but indeed to plan for a more visionary and equitable future for the country for generations to come. Biden will undoubtedly have to weather an onslaught from conservative officials and news outlets alike if he takes this route, but he’d at least advance his goal of unifying his own vibrant and diverse base. If he can at least get that under his belt, he can take on the Republicans after that.